The Milky Way is seen over Rappahannock County Park, which recently received a ‘silver tier’ night-sky designation. It is only the third county park in the U.S. to receive the honor.

The International Dark-Sky Association recently awarded Rappahannock County Park, in Virginia’s “little Washington,” its prestigious International Dark Sky Park “silver tier” designation, making it only the third county park in the nation to be so honored.

“Our dark sky is one of many assets of Rappahannock to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations,” said Mike Del Grosso, chairman of the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority.

“The Dark Skies Park designation raises awareness of the value and beauty of our night sky that hopefully protects it from future light pollution. Being awarded this prestigious Dark Sky Park designation is a great honor,” Del Grosso said. “It validates strong local commitment to maintaining our pristine night skies and opens the Park for night use by astronomy clubs and other groups in the region.”

Longer term, the designation will be a catalyst for increased ecotourism, sparking national and international recognition for Rappahannock County Park and the county’s rural nature, said Torney Van Acker, the authority’s vice chair.

To achieve the silver tier Dark Sky designation, park volunteers measured the quality of the night sky over the course of a full year, held several educational dark-sky events, and engaged in a collaborative effort with the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection to replace unshielded outdoor lighting in the county, free of charge, with dark-sky compliant fixtures.

The International Dark-Sky Association established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on the quality of the night skies, stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach.

Since the program began, more than 100 Dark Sky parks, reserves, sanctuaries, communities and dark sky-friendly developments have received International Dark Sky designations.

“You should be truly proud of the incredible effort you have put towards this application,” wrote Adam Dalton, Dark Sky Places program manager. “I am immensely impressed by this park’s importance as a venue for community awareness and education.”

The hours were expanded at Rappahannock County Park to include regular nighttime use by amateur astronomers and members of the public who enjoy dark skies, said Patricia Rostkowski, coordinator of the Northern Virginia Piedmont Region of the IDA’s Virginia chapter.

“They have been a wonderful example of effective grassroots advocacy and deserve to be recognized and rewarded,” she said.

The idea for applying for the designation began about a year ago when the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection approached the local park staff about it. The park board unanimously adopted the idea and, with the league’s assistance, submitted a formal application 10 months later.

“Most of the people on earth have never seen the Milky Way. The world around us is getting brighter,” said Phil Irwin, co-founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, which was formed in 1970.

The park’s location is convenient; it’s in one of the darker areas of the Rappahannock County. And the park offers facilities suitable for hosting dark-sky events. Its silver-tier designation will be celebrated May 4 at the park’s first dark-sky event of the 2019 season.

The Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority thanked the many individuals and organizations who supported the application, including the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, for including the park on its list of outreach opportunities. The success of the dark-sky events was due in large part to the participation of several Astronomy Club members.

Rappahannock County Park, spanning 7.3 acres, is centrally located in Rappahannock County, off U.S. 211 near the town of Washington. The park features woodlands, open areas, wooded nature trails to the Rush River, a covered pavilion with picnic tables for seating up to 100 people, public restrooms, two tennis courts, a basketball court, swings, a climbing wall, a playground area for children, a skateboard park, a horseshoe pit, a shuffleboard court, a cornhole pitch and several benches. A three-hole Frisbee golf course is being added this spring.

At least four dark-sky events are programmed annually in the park. It has also been approved by the Old Rag Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners for volunteer hours. The Pavilion can be reserved up to a year in advance for activities such as church events, family reunions, company picnics and other group functions at rappahannockcountypark.weebly.com.

The International Dark Sky Association, a nonprofit group based in Tucson, Ariz., advocates for the protection of the nighttime environment and dark night skies by educating policymakers and the public about night sky conservation and promoting environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. For information, see darksky.org.

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